The Legend of Robin Hood

by Joel Van Valin

During the heady days of the Clinton scandal, when moral and political debate broke out spontaneously in grocery lines and hotel lobbies, a thought kept recurring to me. In five hundred years no one will care about the House Managers or the sanctity of the presidency, I would tell anyone who would listen, but Clinton and Lewinsky, they're going to be legends. People will forget Reagan; they'll forget the Bushes, father and son, and Hoover and Wilson and even Kennedy. Heck, they've already forgotten Ford. But they'll remember Wild Bill.

At least, I think they will. It's hard to tell, with legends. Great catastrophes often go down uncelebrated, while relatively minor events are magnified to an astonishing degree. Take Robin Hood. Your average seven year old would be able to recognize him on sight, even tell you something about how he shoots a bow and tricks the mean Sheriff of Nottingham. So riddle me this--how does an obscure 14th century English outlaw, haunting a minor wood in Yorkshire, get placed in the same company as Homer Simpson and Harry Potter? And how did it happen that 21st century Americans who have never even heard of the Peasants' Revolt know all about him? I really don't know the answer, except: that's how legends work.

Authorities are pretty sure Robin Hood was a real outlaw, or perhaps two brigands that were blended together into one legend. The identity of this original Robin Hood is widely open to conjecture, and scholars even disagree about the century he lived in--with theories ranging from the 1400's all the way back to the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the most promising candidate is a certain "Robyn Hood" who is mentioned in the court records of the reign of Edward II. This Robyn was a porter who served for several months in 1324 and then was paid off because "he can no longer work"--which fits with one of the earliest Robin Hood stories, a ballad known as A Gest of Robyn Hode.

Joseph Hunter, the scholar who came across these records, also discovered a certain "Robert Hood" who lived in the village of Wakefield in Yorkshire at about that time. Wakefield is very close to Barnsdale, where the early Robin Hood legends take place (later he was relocated to Sherwood Forest near Nottingham). Hunter further speculated that Robin may have been involved in Thomas of Lancaster's rebellion against Edward in 1322, and was outlawed for this reason. The Gest does not describe how Robin Hood became an outlaw, but it does say he was pardoned by Edward and went to serve the king at court. He soon became broke, however, and all his men left him save Little John and Will Scarlet. Homesick for the greenwood, he asked Edward leave to go on pilgrimage to a chapel he built in Barnsdale--and never returned:

    Robin dwelt in greene-wood,
    Twenty year and two;
    For all the dread of Edward our King,
    Again would he not go.

According to The Death of Robin Hood (another early ballad whose details have the ring of truth about them), Robin Hood lived in the greenwood until his death; he died at the hands of his cousin, the treacherous prioress of Kirkleeys abbey. Feeling ill, he went to Kirkleeys so she could bleed him, not knowing that she was secretly the lover of Sir Roger of Donkesley, one of Robin's enemies. After putting on the blood irons, the nun left him to bleed to death:

    And first it bled the thick, thick blood,
    And afterwards the thin,
    And well then wist good Robin Hood
    Treason there was within.

He had just enough strength left to blow his horn, summoning Little John; Robin let fly an arrow and instructed John to bury him where it landed (and there is to this day at Kirkleeys abbey a grave purported to be Robin Hood's).

Legend says that this grave at Kirkleeys estate is Robin Hood's. Photo courtesy David Hepworth.

The other main characters of the early Robin Hood legends are John and the Sheriff of Nottingham. The name "Little John" or "John Little" was not uncommon and appears in many records of the period. One "Littel John" was reported to be part of a group accused of illegally killing deer in Yorkshire in 1323, which does ring a bell. Likewise there were many "Sheriffs of Nottingham" throughout the 14th century. The likeliest candidate is probably Henry de Faucemberg, who was the sheriff of Nottinghamshire between 1323-25 and the sheriff of Yorkshire between 1325-27. That would place him around Barnsdale, Robin Hood's original setting, at the same time as the Robyn Hood mentioned above. And, being from Nottingham, he may well have been called "The Sheriff of Nottingham". This name might have prompted later storytellers to place Robin Hood in Nottinghamshire itself, where Sherwood forest had its own outlaw legends.

Whatever the circumstances of the real Robin Hood and his associates, they must have captured the imagination of the local populace--because by the late 14th century they had become the stuff of legend. The first reference we find to the legendary Robin Hood is in John Langland's Piers Plowman (1377), and it seems he was already a well known figure at that time, with a starring role in several ballads. Now, being the subject of a popular ballad in medieval England was like having your own Hollywood blockbuster, with a best-selling soundtrack. In a largely illiterate society, the ballads were a way to record and remember events, and have a little fun while doing it. A ballad was never the work of any one author, but was instead bandied about freely from performer to performer, each altering the lines a little, until it became sharpened to a condensed, dramatic expression of the English peasantry. Once that happened, the ballad could continue on in the collective minds of its populace for hundreds of years, until singers didn't even know what some of the words meant. But if it had a pretty tune or captivating story, the ballad lived on.

Okay, so Robin & co. were lucky enough to become a darling of the ballads. But so were Mary Hamilton and Sir Patrick Spens--not quite household names any more. In the case of Robin Hood, though, I think there are two motifs that resonated among English commoners of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, and continue to strike a chord today, especially here in the United States.

The more obvious theme is that of "the good outlaw", an anti-authoritarian hero. England in the Middle Ages was ruled for the most part by a pack of tyrannical lords and their officials. The most hated were the "verderers", who protected the woods from poaching, and the "sheriffs", law men appointed by crown to enforce the king's law and collect taxes. The peasants also despised the hypocritical monks, nuns, and other rich clergy who preached poverty but lived in luxury. But the early Robin Hood was not a guerilla leader or philanthropist--he was simply a highwayman with a noble character. In the early ballads, the merry men are often seen waylaying travelers on the road, and "inviting them to dine" with Robin Hood, after which Robin would ask some outrageous sum for the dinner. In the Geste, for instance, a rich monk is ambushed by Little John:

    "Who is your master?" said the Monk.
    Little John said, "Robin Hood."
    "He is a strong theif," sayd the Monk,
    "Of him I never heard good."
    "Thou liest," then sayd Little John,
    "And that shall rue thee;
    He is a yeoman of the forest,
    To dine he hath bidden thee."

In contrast to your typical forest bandit, Robin would be well mannered at the table, even courteous. He was also generous and devout. In the Geste he loans Richard at Lee, an honest knight who is deeply in debt, four hundred pounds. And in Robin Hood and the Monk he goes to Nottingham because he feels the need to pray at Saint Mary's church (where he is promptly captured by the Sheriff).

Perhaps his special attachment to the Virgin explains Robin Hood's courtesy towards women--in the rare instances where they appear in the ballads. In Robin Hood and the Potter a disguised Robin Hood makes love to the Sheriff's wife very gallantly (in disguise, of course), and in The Death of Robin Hood he says:

    I never hurt a woman in all my life
    Nor men in woman's company.

This nobleness of character have led some to speculate that the real Robin Hood was a dispossessed aristocrat, perhaps the earl of Huntingdon. But in the ballads he is referred to as a "yeoman", a free man owning some small property. And to be sure, he doesn't act the part of a knight--he employs disguise and trickery more often than courage and valor. In a particularly violent sequence in Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne, he slashes the dead Sir Guy's face past recognition, so that the Sheriff will think the corpse is his, then dons Sir Guy's clothes:

    Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
    And nickd Sir Guy in the face,
    That he was never on woman born
    Could tell whose head it was.
    Saies, "Lye there, lye there, good Sir Guye,
    And with me be not wrothe;
    If thou have had the worse stroakes at my hand,
    Thou shalt have the better clothe."

    Robin did off his gowne of greene,
    On Sir Guy it throwe,
    And hee put on that capull-hyde,
    That cladd him topp to toe.

Perhaps not Hollywood's ideal hunk. Still, the brilliance of Robin's deceit is appealing in its own way, and it, along with his courtesy and anti-authoritarianism, have made him a memorable folk hero, not unlike the famous outlaws of the American west.

The other aspect of the legend of Robin Hood which I think keeps it relevant in modern times is the pastoral setting of the "greenwood". The forest is a delightful place to spend a morning, particularly in May, as the opening lines of Robin Hood and the Monk tell us:

    In somer when the shawes be sheyne,
    And leves be large and long,
    Hit is full merry in feyre foreste
    To hear the foulys song.
    To see the dere draw to the dale
    And leve the hilles hee,
    And shadow him in the leves of grene
    Under the green-wode tree.
    Hit befell on Whitsontide
    Earlie in a May mornyng,
    The sonne up faire can shyne,
    And the briddis mery can syng.
    `This is a mery mornyng,' said Litulle Johne,
    `Be Hym that dyed on tree;
    A more mery man than I am one
    Lyves not in Christiantè.

    `Pluck up thi hert, my dere mayster,'
    Litulle Johne can say,
    `And thynk hit is a fulle fayre tyme
    In a mornynge of May.'

This vision of the forest as being an idyllic retreat from civilization is a product of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, when feudalism was dying out and droves of peasants were forsaking the rural countryside for the fast growing, dirty towns of Europe. Shakespeare and Cervantes, writing a couple hundred years after the earliest Robin Hood ballads, echo this passion for pastoralism, and it still strikes a resounding chord in the American west today.

There may be more to this pastoral theme than an innocent delight in nature. Aside from the ballads there is one other early source of the Robin Hood legend: the plays performed during the May Games, some dating from the 1400s. The May Games plays were part of the ritual of the returning spring, and Robin Hood appeared as a forest spirit, similar to the fairy known as Robin Goodfellow (Puck), and in the company of a free woman named Marion (perhaps an early version of Maid Marian). Some folklorists have found traces of this Celtic ritual in the ballads as well. The passage from Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne quoted above, for example, can be interpreted as the personification of spring (Robin, dressed in green) disfiguring winter (Guy, dressed in brown). It may be, in fact, that "Robin Hood" was simply an alias taken up by one or more forest outlaws.

Whether the real or mythical Robin Hood came first is an open question, but by the time of the early ballads they had become one: an outlaw king of the forest, noble and devious by turns. Through the centuries a number of supporting characters have been added: Friar Tuck, Maid Marian, Allin a Dale. These characters were introduced in short ballads written in the Renaissance; the poems are comical and typically have Robin Hood fighting the new personage with a staff or sword and losing (even Maid Marian fights poor Rob to a standstill). When novels became the rage, it opened new possibilities for the legend. Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, for example, merges the Robin Hood legend with another famous story, the return of Richard the Lionhearted from the crusades. In the twentieth century, actors played Robin Hood in a score of movies--Errol Flynn most notably, and Kevin Costner most incompetently. There was even a Disney cartoon that featured Robin, quite appropriately, as a fox.

All in all it must be admitted that, for a 14th century brigand, Robin's done pretty well for himself. But his isn't the only legend that had humble beginnings. A petty disagreement over hunting rights on the Scottish border became The Ballad of Chevy Chase, and France's national epic, The Song of Roland, can be traced to a small ambush of Charlemagne's knights by Basque separatists. As to Clinton, I think his chances of achieving legend-status are pretty good. In fact, I've already started a ballad:

    Clinton stood before the press
    Speaking of tax cuts
    But longed to be with Monica.
    That girl just drove him nuts.

Okay, never mind ...

For further reading... Most of the Robin Hood ballads can be found at the University of Rochester's Robin Hood Project site ( Allen Wright's Robin Hood page ( is an excellent source of information about the legend.

2002 by Joel Van Valin. All rights reserved.